Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Myths about Foreign Language Learning and Learning Disabilities

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Myths about Foreign Language Learning and Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt


In a previous article, Sparks (2009) examined the concept of "foreign language learning disability" (FLLD). He contended that learners' language skills run along a continuum from very strong to very weak, and that one could be classified as having an FLLD only by choosing an arbitrary "cut point" along that continuum below which one would be classified as "disabled." The validity of a continuum approach rather than a disability approach was supported by persistent and ongoing problems that educators had in developing an empirically valid definition and establishing research-based diagnostic criteria for identifying learning disabilities (LDs) generally. Sparks also reviewed studies showing that there was no empirical evidence to support a unique disability for foreign language (FL) learning (see also Sparks, 2006).

However, despite the lack of supporting evidence, the notion that those classified as LD will have problems with FL learning and the idea of an FLLD have gained acceptance over the last few years.1 Even when the term FLLD is not used explicitly, a relationship between LDs and problems with FL learning is implied (Nijakowska, 2010). This article summarizes current policies regarding course substitutions and waivers for the FL requirement and addresses several of the more common myths about FL learning and LDs.

Beliefs, Policies, and Practices

Both secondary schools and postsecondary institutions have policies allowing for course substitutions for, and waivers from, the FL requirement for students who are classified as LD. For example, when conducting a random search of the accommodationspoliciesof50different public and private U.S. colleges and universities, the author found that even though there were some minor differences in their policies, each institution required that a student be classified as disabled-in most cases, as LD-to apply for course substitutions and waivers of the FL requirement. Similarly, Wight (2014) found that, for secondary-level students, most school districts and private schools set their own policies, formal or informal, for course substitutions and waivers, although a state might adopt specific policies. In their examination of college and university policies regarding the FL requirement, Lys, May, and Ravid (2014) found that most institutions did not assist students classified as LD in choosing the most appropriate FL courses, nor did they focus on providing support for FL study. Rather, most institutions simply reviewed a student's disability documentation, determined eligibility, and decided which courses could be substituted for the required FL courses.

The aforementioned policies for course substitutions and waivers have been based on fl awed premises about students who are classified as LD and on misunderstanding and misuse of the LD concept. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act incorporated the following definition of LD:

"Specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1977, p. 65083)

Unfortunately, researchers and practitioners in the LD field have been unable to agree on how to interpret the LD definition's vague parameters and how to operationalize empirically valid diagnostic and eligibility criteria for classification as LD.2,3 The failure to agree on the definition and diagnostic criteria for LD has been problematic since the field's inception. …

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